Article  |  Reentry

Reentry support: Lessons learned from community-based programs

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Over 10,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons each week and arrive back in our nation’s communities, resulting in more than 650,000 formerly incarcerated individuals requiring reintegration into society each year1. In Illinois, over 30,000 inmates were released from prison in 2013, with about 39 percent returning to Chicago to serve a period of parole2. Community-based reentry programs can play an important role in the successful re-integration of returning individuals, by providing vital services and supports as a supplement to the parole system.

In 2014, the Reentry Program, one of three components of Illinois’ Community Violence Prevention Program (CVPP) receiving funds through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, operated as voluntary program for youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 28 returning to their community after incarceration in a state correctional facility. The program provided services in 21 Chicago area communities in order to assist clients with compliance with their parole board orders and other aspects of successful community reintegration, such as educational enrollment and employment. The program performance period spanned from November 1, 2013 through August 31, 2014.

Authority research staff studied the 2014 Reentry Program by collecting case management data on client demographics, service needs, and program results for a sample of 517 youth and young adults with verified incarceration in IDJJ or IDOC prior to program participation and documented program participation during the 2014 program period. Client and case manager surveys augmented this case-level data.

Key findings

Program clients

Seventy percent of the 517 Reentry Program clients included in this study were on parole from IDOC facilities, and 30 percent were on aftercare from IDJJ. Both groups of clients were enrolled at program sites in 18 Chicago community areas and three suburban sites. More than half (59 percent) of clients lived in the community area in which they were enrolled. Most Reentry Program sites (86 percent) focused on serving either youth exiting from IDJJ or young adults exiting from IDOC, rather than serving both clients groups. Most case managers (84 percent) worked exclusively with one type of client.

Two thirds of all Reentry Program clients were referred to the program by their parole officer or aftercare specialist, although IDJJ clients reported this referral source most often (82 percent). Nineteen percent of IDOC clients reported family, friends, and community groups as sources of program referrals.

Reentry Program clients were overwhelming male (95 percent) and Black (83 percent). The average age of IDJJ clients was 17 years old, while IDOC clients were older (22 years old, on average). However, the most common age for both client groups was 20 years old.

IDJJ clients were living most often with parents at the time of program enrollment (68 percent), while IDOC clients more often reported living with other relatives, spouses, or partners (33 percent compared to 18 percent). Most clients did not have children (82 percent).

At the time of enrollment, IDJJ clients had lower prior educational attainment than IDOC clients, partially because they were younger. Fewer IDJJ clients reported completing at least one year of high school (63 percent) compared to IDOC clients (93 percent). However, at the common age of 20, thirty-one percent of IDJJ clients reported attaining no more than an eighth grade education, compared to 4 percent of IDOC clients.

The most common incarceration offense type for both groups was a violent offense (30 percent). Violent offenses were defined according to the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act, which defines a violent offense as any felony in which force or threat of force was used against the victim [725 ILCS 120/et seq.].

A greater proportion of IDJJ clients were incarcerated for a property offense compared to IDOC clients (31 percent compared to 22 percent), while a greater proportion of IDOC clients were incarcerated for drugs and weapons offenses (46 percent compared to 37 percent).

Program services

All clients in this study completed a service plan with their case managers based on conditions of parole imposed by the Prisoner Review Board (PRB), with additional recommendations from the parole officer/aftercare specialist, case manager, and client. The Reentry Program offered 28 different services in four categories: mandated parole/aftercare conditions, social/emotional services, educational /vocational services, and other support services.

Service plan requirements differed for IDJJ clients and IDOC clients. IDJJ clients were mandated or recommended most often to enroll in for GED/high school classes, substance abuse assessment, support groups to deal with negative peers, curfew monitoring, and random urinalysis. IDOC clients were mandated or recommended most often for substance abuse treatment, full time employment, GED/High school classes, job training, anger management, and other support services.

Overall, about half of Reentry Program clients were linked to the services for which they were mandated or recommended during the program performance period, although the linkage rate varied by type of service. Of the 26 services mandated or recommended for both client groups, IDJJ clients were linked at a higher rate than IDOC clients for most service types (19 of the 26), most notably for substance abuse assessment, mental health services, GED/High school classes, and job seeking services.

Short-term program results

The Reentry Program clients in this study completed 152 (9 percent) of the 1,692 mandated or recommended services during the nine-month program period. The highest rates of completion were for obtaining short-term continuity of care assistance, such as enrolling in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (food stamps) (60 percent), or obtaining a birth certificate (67 percent) as a prerequisite for a state ID. Half of the clients linked to a term of electronic monitoring completed this parole/aftercare condition before the program ended, while the others linked to electronic monitoring were still continuing at the end of the performance period. Of the few clients mandated or recommended to enroll in college, half were able to do so before the program ended.

IDOC clients completed more services than IDJJ clients. Despite the challenges of a serious criminal background, one third of those mandated or recommended for employment services were successful in obtaining full-time employment, while another 43 percent obtained part-time employment. One third successfully completed anger management services. No IDJJ or IDOC clients linked to GED/high school classes were indicated as completing their educational requirements before the program ended.

Figure 1

At the end of the program performance period, more than half (56 percent) of the 517 clients were still enrolled as program participants, 11 percent had successfully completed the Reentry Program, and 33 percent were terminated as unsuccessful (Figure 1). Successful completion was defined as completing parole requirements, completing all program requirements, or being transferred to another agency to complete requirements. Reasons for unsuccessful termination included loss of contact with case manager for more than 30 days, return to a correctional facility, or violation of parole or program rules. IDOC and IDJJ clients were found to have similar rates of program outcomes except for unsuccessful termination due to return to a correctional facility. The majority of clients was still serving their parole term and still enrolled in programming at the time the 2014 Reentry Program was terminated and would have been expected to continue working toward successful completion of mandated/recommended requirements.

Client survey results

Of the 186 clients between 13 to 28 years old who responded to an on-line survey about their experiences with the Reentry Program, 66 percent reported having been in the program fewer than three months.

When asked what they hoped to get from the Reentry Program, 164 clients (88 percent) provided open-ended responses. Of these, 29 percent stated that they wanted to find employment, 19 percent needed the types of services offered by the reentry program (e.g., anger management, substance abuse treatment, or job training), and 9 percent expressed educational needs.

When asked about services accessed with assistance from case managers, 60 percent stated that they were assisted in seeking employment/placement, while 59 percent stated that they were assisted in securing educational/job training services. Approximately one third of respondents reported receiving assistance with transportation (38 percent) and food and clothing (30 percent).

The vast majority of survey respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they were treated with respect (97 percent), that their case manager was fair and concerned about them (92 percent), that visits from case managers helped them comply with parole requirements (87 percent), and that their case manager was easy to reach (89 percent). One third of respondents (32 percent) strongly agreed or agreed that their case managers expected too much of them.

Case manager exit survey results

A total of 17 case managers responded to an on-line survey at the end of the program performance period. Half (47 percent) reported caseloads consistent with the terms of the contract (maintenance of a 15-20 client caseload at any given time).

All 17 case managers reported referring clients to, or providing, GED services, job training, substance abuse and anger management services, and assistance in obtaining continuity of care services such as obtaining identification documents, public assistance, and medical assistance.

Implications for policy and practice

Reentry program developers and administrators

Offer developmentally appropriate services

The CVPP Reentry Program was designed to serve a wide age range of clients - from age 13 through age 28. Findings revealed differences between clients released from IDJJ (ages 13-20) and IDOC (ages 17-28) in terms of individual characteristics, developmental needs, and mandated/recommended services requirements. Further, clients from IDJJ and IDOC within the overlapping age range of 18 to 20 years (27 percent of Reentry Program clients) differed substantially on educational attainment.

Reentry program administrators choosing to serve both youth and young adults should ensure that services and supervision for each age group are developmentally appropriate and address the distinct needs of this population.3 This may require grouping clients into services not only on age, but also on cognitive ability, since client cognitive level plays a role in how well they comprehend mandated or recommended programming curriculum.4 The evaluation found that this was happening on an informal basis in the Reentry Program, as very few sites served both younger IDJJ clients and older IDOC clients.

Further, best practices suggest that reentry programs that provide treatment should use cognitive-behavioral treatment techniques that are matched to specific client learning characteristics.5 This includes consideration for the effects of client exposure to violence, as victims, witnesses, and perpetrators.6 Almost one-third of youth and young adults participating in the Reentry Program had been incarcerated for violent crimes prior to their program enrollment, and all had experienced the negative effects of incarceration at a young age. Case managers surveyed in this study recognized this, as they expressed interest in more training in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Implement use of validated risk assessment and case management tools in developing individual service plans

Another key component of successful reentry programs is the use of risk-of-recidivism and case management tools to determine which individuals could benefit most from services.7 In addition, research has shown that clients’ cooperation and likelihood of successful completion of their case plans increases when they are given the opportunity to be involved in developing their own service plans.8

CVPP Reentry Program case managers were expected to screen new clients for eligibility factors of age and reentry status, and determine their service needs based on PRB and parole documents. The recommendations of the case manager and clients were secondary. Further, program documentation did not capture client levels of involvement, if any, in developing their service plans. When clients were surveyed about their program experiences, close to two-thirds (63 percent) identified needs that matched the services and referrals offered by the program: 29 percent wanted to find employment; 19 percent wanted anger management, substance abuse treatment, or job training; and 9 percent expressed educational needs. On the other hand, 20 percent were less specific when asked what they hoped to get from the program, providing such responses as a means to a better life or help with not recidivating.

Absent from the CVPP Reentry Program model was the directive for case managers to use a validated risk assessment or case management tool in developing client service plans. Case managers at each site were left without a systematic means to identify those clients ready to fulfill parole mandates and follow through with service referrals, and those that needed more assistance with managing the transition back into the community before they could benefit from service referrals. Referral linkage and completion rates might have been higher if case managers were given validated case management tools, such as the Client Management Classification instrument available through the National Institute of Corrections9 to assist with client assessment, rather than being expected to take a one-size-fits all approach. It is recommended that future community-based reentry programs build in this important evidence-based practice into their program models, to ensure cost-effective allocation of program resources to clients based on their needs and readiness for services.

Consider critical timeframes for program participation when designing a reentry program

One important time frame for reentry programming is program duration. Best practices indicate that programs should last at least six months.10 Due to discontinued funding for the CVPP Reentry Program three months early, the majority of clients received six months or less of services and mandated programming, with half receiving three months or less. While the reentry program was able to successfully link half of mandated clients to vocational training programs and employment within the nine months of program operation, more time would be required to complete programming and such activities as completion of a high school degree or an equivalent GED certificate. Since the length of participation in a supportive reentry program has been shown to reduce recidivism during the critical first year of release, especially for clients with multiple needs11, it is important that adequate program duration be considered in the development and operations of a reentry program.

Research has also identified that best practice for reentry programs includes the initiation of client contact during incarceration, to establish client rapport and continuity of care from institutional to community services.12 If this is not possible, then client contact should be made during the critical days and weeks following release. Research indicates that this is a critical time period for recidivism, which often results from the inability to obtain basic needs previously provided by the institution.13 These include the critical needs of food, clothing and shelter, urgent needs of financial resources, medication, and transportation, and important needs of identification documents, health care referrals and social supports.14

Very few Reentry Program clients (5 percent) met with program staff prior to their release. Instead, clients were typically obtained through referrals from parole agents/aftercare specialists once they were released into the community. This was true for the majority (82 percent) of IDJJ clients, and 59 percent of IDOC clients. Of those clients referred by parole/aftercare staff, most started the program within 30 days of their release. The majority of surveyed case managers reported providing or referring clients to assistance with housing, emergency food or clothing, public aid, transportation, and obtaining identification documents, and a third of clients surveyed reported accessing these services through the program. However, CVPP Reentry Program documentation considered these services ancillary to program goals and objectives, rather than a key component of successful client reentry. Developers of reentry programs should consider placing more emphasis on client continuity of care services, beginning in the institution, in recognition of their importance as foundations and best practices for program success. This should include better tracking of case manager supportive activities and contacts with clients, in order to be able to assess the effects of these activities on client outcomes.

Build and maintain strategic partnerships with correctional agencies

Developing and maintaining strategic partnerships is a key element of successful reentry programming15. However, community organizations often find building relationships within correctional systems to be challenging for many reasons, including lack of clear communication channels, conflicting roles, difficulty in maintaining continuity when personnel changes, and administrative burdens placed on civilian access to clients in secure facilities.16 While the Lead Agency structure of the CVPP Reentry Program was designed to facilitate partnerships with state correctional agencies, only half of case managers surveyed reported having an expected caseload of 15-20 clients. Further, the client distribution was skewed heavily toward the older population exiting from IDOC, accounting for 70 percent of the 2014 Reentry Program participants. These are indications that the program referral process was not as robust as anticipated. Programs interested in providing supplemental parole services for both youth and young adult reentry clients should consider designing internal operational structures that deal separately with the juvenile and adult correctional agencies for a more successful referral process from each correctional agency. Successful liaison with correctional officials is more likely to occur to the extent that community reentry program administrators can demonstrate the program’s capacity to provide each client group with services that are evidence-based and developmentally appropriate.

Corrections, Prisoner Review Board officials, and policy makers

Develop parole mandates in tandem with evidence-based community reentry programs

Parole mandates set by the PRB and parole/aftercare specialists were central to the services offered by the Reentry Program. The Crime Reduction Act of 2009 [730 ILCS/190] mandates that conditions of parole are to be imposed by the PRB in light of standardized assessment that takes into account the individual’s risks, assets and needs, and that such an assessment be conducted before the individual is released. The law also calls for the results to be used to develop evidence-based local supervision strategies, and that they be shared with non-governmental entities that will actually be supplying mandated services in the community. At the time of the Reentry Program performance period in 2014, this assessment process was not yet implemented within IDOC. As the organization begins to roll out its Risk, Assets and Needs Assessment (RANA) process17, it is recommended that correctional officials and other policy makers consider adoption of the best-practices continuum of care model, where community programs are given a role in reentry case planning ahead of the individual’s release into the community.18 Building the institutional capacity to partner with community reentry programs capable of delivering evidence-based services has been shown to reduce recidivism and increase the pro-social engagement of released individuals.19

Conditions of parole that apply to both juvenile and adult parolees are defined by state statute [730 ILCS 5/3-3-7], although others can be set by the PRB and parole officers based on the needs of the individual. Other states have begun to examine the extent to which their statutory parole mandates align with current research on evidence-based community supervision practices (for example, Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, 2016). The Illinois Crime Reduction Act calls for the adoption of evidence-based practices in local supervision, as well. This study found that the most commonly mandated conditions of parole were related to employment and job training, education, and substance abuse treatment. Future research should examine how parolee readiness affects the successful completion of those mandates, and how correctional and community reentry programming can effectively assess readiness and provide services in ways that will reduce parole mandate non-compliance and resulting expensive technical violation incarceration.

  1. United States Department of Justice, 2015
  2. Marin et al., 2014
  3. Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015
  4. Tolbert, 2012
  5. Petersilia, 2004
  6. Welfare and Hollin, 2011
  7. James, 2015
  8. Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015
  9. Baird & Neuenfeldt, 1990
  10. James, 2015; Altschuler & Armstrong, 2002
  11. Abrams, Terry, & Franke, 2011
  12. James, 2015
  13. Stanford Executive Sessions on Sentencing and Corrections, 2012
  14. Glassheim, 2011
  15. McLellan, 2005
  16. Sandwick, Tamis, et al, 2013
  17. IDOC FY2015 Annual Report, 2016
  18. Alschuler & Armstrong, 2002
  19. James, 2015

Reentry support: Lessons learned from community-based programs